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Alvin Ailey's American Dance Theatre's Kirven James Boyd. (Andrew Eccles)
Alvin Ailey's American Dance Theatre's Kirven James Boyd. (Andrew Eccles)

DANCE REVIEW

Defying shallow choreography - and gravity, too Add to ...

The dancers are sleek and sexy; the repertoire, shallow.

Under artistic director Robert Battle, appointed last year, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre lacks substance. But that didn’t seem to bother the audience on Thursday, who cheered every showy move. This concert was clearly a showcase for the formidable Ailey dancers, with the choreography relegated to a supporting role.

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What choreography was on show was a mix of old and new: Rennie Harris’s Home (2011); Battle’s own Takademe (1999) and The Hunt (2001); and, from the company’s storied past, Ailey’s Revelations (1960) and Joyce Trisler’s Journey (1958).

Collectively, the works deal with superficial themes. The audience-friendly program requires no deep thought: It’s aimed less at provocation than at entertainment. Regardless of the relative merits of the dance pieces, though, the performers are indeed a joy to watch. Boasting some of the best modern dancers on the planet, this mostly Afro-American company moves like liquid honey – smooth and silky. Their supple bodies bend, stretch and contract in ways that defy gravity.

Take Battle’s droll solo in Takademe, performed by Kirven James Boyd. The most interesting work on the program, the piece includes a score taken from British pop singer Sheila Chandra’s CD Speaking in Tongues II, where she mimics the chanting cadence of counting beats and rhythms found in Indian classical dance. For every beat spoken, Battle provides a corresponding physicality. When the count is fast, Boyd’s bare-chested body moved as if waves were rippling up and down his frame. From the most infinitesimal muscle isolation to total body jumps, this dancer performed an absolute translation of music into movement.

Battle’s gift for matching bodies to rhythm – and showcasing his deft dancers – is also seen in The Hunt, a ritualistic number set to a score by famed percussion group Les Tambours du Bronx. Driven by the beat, the piece includes intense circle dances as well as men dragging other men like dead animals, as well as scenes of one-on-one combat – physical images expressing how bonding takes these men to a higher plane. The six-member ensemble, garbed in long black skirts with red lining, embody a testosterone-infused primitive priesthood. Their hunt is for spiritual empowerment.

Home, meanwhile, is from an American choreographer best-known for transforming hip-hop moves into concert dance. Melding hip-hop, modern and contemporary dance moves, he creates a piece with rapid footwork and gymnastic jumps and turns.

Beyond the physical, Home seems to be about searching. It is accompanied by spoken text, about finding one’s place, from Dennis Ferrer and Raphael Xavier. This is also expressed by dancer Matthew Rushing as he breaks away from the group, only to join it again at the end of the piece. In between, Rushing engages in a wide variety of movement along with different combinations of dancers from the 13-member ensemble. This makes the audience a sort of witness to the individuals that make up a crowd. The movement also speaks of religious rapture, filled as it is with shudders and quaking.

Trisler’s Journey, a solo performed by the stately Linda Celeste Sims, is another piece about searching – this time a controlled and elegant quest.

The only question mark on the program: The ever-and-always present Revelations. Ailey’s homage to the gospel roots of his rural Texas childhood, this piece appears on every bill. But if it’s a signature Ailey work anchored in the Afro-American experience, the company’s new artistic director needs to ponder whether familiarity breeds contempt. Surely, there’s more to show off from Ailey. He’s hardly a one-trick pony.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

  • At the Sony Centre
  • In Toronto on Thursday

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre performs at the Sony Centre until Saturday.

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